No bum steer, Baltimore-style barbecue is a sizzling sensation

BEST BEEF ON THE BLOCK

July 19, 1992|By Mark Bomster and Jon Morgan

It's one of those Amazonian afternoons in Baltimore -- the temperature is a deceptively low 85 degrees but the humidity is nearing that of the ocean floor -- and Tom Siecinski is doing what he loves best.

Wearing a stained apron, a "Tom's pit beef" cap and a black rubber glove, he is carefully dabbing 10 pounds of searing, top round beef with a sponge soaked in his peppery "secret sauce."

The meat is cut into shark-bite-sized chunks, skewered on metal spikes and suspended over a bed of glowing Buckeye Certified Hardwood charcoal in a stainless-steel grill.

A 3-foot-by-3-foot electric fan whirs from atop a nearby box. Occasionally, Tom will lean it forward so it blows onto the charcoal, maintaining a nearly flameless glow.

With barely a word to the working-class patrons spilling out of the nearby Benjamin's Tavern or the 10-year-old neighborhood boys, all of whom stop to watch and most to buy, Tom conducts a graceful sidewalk ballet. One after the other, at precisely the right time, the beef chunks are turned. Then sponged. Then fanned. Turn. Sponge. Fan.

If this weren't 33rd Street and Keswick Avenue, the heart of Hampden, you'd think this performance art and look for a hat to drop money into. But this is pit beef -- possibly the best pit beef in the city that invented the cuisine -- and Tom's not sweating out here to amuse the children.

"How you want it cooked?" says Tom, a big, bearded ex-cop who retired on disability after a couple of on-the-job mishaps, only to set up shop on a corner of his old beat.

"White, wheat, rye or bun?"

Tom knows where on which chunk of beef to go for the cut the customer is looking for. He uses a rhythmic motion of knife and fork to whittle the chunks down, cutting the most-cooked sections first, exposing the rarer portions beneath to the flames. When the carvings form a mound the size of a fist, Tom piles it onto the bread, wraps it in aluminum foil and hands it over. Give him $3.50.

"If you want to ruin the sandwich, go inside and do it," Tom says, waving customers into Benjamin's, where a variety of sauces, onions and other condiments can be had. Tom would disagree, but the best bet is sliced onion, fresh horseradish and mayonnaise.

This is pit beef as only Marylanders serve it: sidewalk simple and smoky good. Throughout the state, at roadside stands and jerry-built shacks, at rural bull roasts and in the shadows of steel factories, people like Tom carry on a tradition that goes back generations and confounds the experts.

"It's unusual in that it's beef in the half of the country where pork predominates," says Vince Staten, author of "Real Barbecue." He says barbecue is probably one of the oldest and most regionalized of all foods, stemming, most experts think, from a chance encounter between a caveman, his kill and his campfire.

The variations are endless. In Eastern North Carolina, barbecue is prepared from the whole hog and is marinated in a vinegar-based sauce free of tomatoes, a carry-over from the days when tomatoes were thought to be poisonous. Mutton barbecue is king in a few counties of Kentucky where sheep were raised in the 1940s for the war effort. In the mountain town of Fountain Run, Tenn., a pork chop served with a hot Worcestershire dip is called barbecue.

And in South Georgia, goat is cooked over open pits.

"It's good. A little strong, gamy, but good," Mr. Staten says.

If a generalization can be made about American barbecue, it is this: Pork predominates east of the Mississippi River and beef to the west. But word of this never got to Pulaski Highway in East Baltimore, where on a recent Saturday no fewer than six pit beef stands were putting out their tantalizing smoke.

"It sounds awfully American. It's convenient. You don't need silverware and you can eat it in your car. All of these things are typical of American food," says Michael Stern, co-author of "Roadfood" and "A Taste of America."

The cuisine has attracted a fan in no less a connoisseur than Chef Bill Lay, an instructor at the Baltimore International Culinary College.

"I have traveled all over the country and most of Europe and have never encountered roadside pit beef stands. Remarkably, they are fairly good," Chef Lay says.

There's nothing unique about spit roasting, Chef Lay says. Like most people who've studied meats, he assumes the practice was invented by some Cro-Magnon with a flair for flame broiling. Descriptions of it have been found in the records of ancient Egyptians and Sumerians. Indians used sage and aromatic seeds to flavor their roasted meat. Colonial Americans got hooked on hickory and oak.

Modern Texans fancy a pit-cooked beef barbecue that is similar to Maryland's, but it is cooked slowly over burning hardwood -- not charcoal -- and in its purest form is served on butcher paper as finger food with pickles and crackers. This is a throwback to the days when bread-less meat markets cooked the meat that hadn't sold to avoid spoiling, said Rick Schmidt, a co-owner of the Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas.

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